Ethnography and theology
I said in my post yesterday that I'm on research leave and would try to think out loud a bit about the interconnected projects I'm working on in this blog space. Yesterday, I wrote about the practical reason aspect of my research and writing. A further aspect of that, in a way, is writing about ethnographic research as theology. That is something I've written about before (most recently in Ethnography as Christian Theology and Ethics, co-written with Aana Vigen and other colleagues). At the moment, however, I'm at work writing a paper for the American Academy of Religion meetings for a section on Ethography and Theology. I'm writing the paper with my research partner, Eileen Campbell-Reed. I'll post our abstract and then say a bit more about the paper.
"Ethnography on Holy Ground:Practical Theology, Shared Silence, and Qualitative Interviewing"
How is ethnographic interviewing experienced as ‘holy ground’? Since the early 1990s, ‘empirical’ or ‘descriptive’ theology has been understood as an indispensable moment in practical theology. Yet too often the descriptive move in practical theology is but a flowery theological label blooming on a straightforward social science stem. This paper proposes a more fully theological ‘descriptive moment’ for practical theology by showing how ethnographic interviewing is practical theological work. Focusing on our ethnographic interviews with pastors and seminarians, we describe a theological rationale—drawing on concepts from Nelle Morton and Parker Palmer—for incorporating the shared practice of silence into interviews. We recount how the practice of keeping silence developed over two years of interviewing. We conclude with reflections on the complex impact of the practice including: creating safe space for coming to voice, articulating woundedness and grief, experiencing shared sacred presence, and fostering good pastoral ministry.
In writing this paper, we've found that it has required honesty about both how we had some things right from the beginning (e.g. knowing that this process of group interviewing was not just technique for data gathering but spiritual practice). But further, it required serious reflection on how we grew and learned through doing the practice itself (of building a circle of trust within which to invite people's stories, and of centering that circle in the practice of silent prayer). In a profound sense, we learned what we were doing by doing it, a claim we seek to explore in the lives of those who are 'learning pastoral imagination' through living in the practices of ministry. The process of stopping to write what we are doing has worked as a formative evaulation, helping us clarify what matters in what we do and how we can to know to do what we are now doing. Lovely, and an example of the complexity of practical theological research in an ethnographic mode.
More tomorrow on how this has sparked my own prayer life and deepened my engagement with the Christian practice of contemplation.